Top Ten of 2010 - Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty

Twelve years in the waiting and seven in the making, Blizzard finally let the world in on its continuing saga of the war between the Terran, Zerg and Protoss. Undoubtedly one of the most eagerly anticipated sequels in gaming history, and one with an almost impossible expectation to live up to.

What Blizzard did to pull off the resounding success that is Starcraft II, is 'simply' polish it to gleaming brilliance. Starcraft is probably most famous among RTS fans for its almost perfect balance, which is without doubt a major factor in its continued popularity. A legitimate sport has been made of the game as a consequence of it. Starcraft II doesn't mess very much with the formula in terms of the makeup of the various factions. What it does do is wrap the package in phenomenally high production values and offer a multiplayer component that is second to none.

Back to the game itself for a bit though. The storyline picks up a few years after Brood War left off, with the Queen of Blades and her Zerg swarm vanished without trace, the Protoss retreating from the spotlight and Jim Raynor leading a rag-tag rebel group intent on taking down treacherous emperor Arcturus Mengsk. Raynor gets involved in a race to uncover ancient artifacts, which also brings the Zerg and Protoss back into the action. A fateful encounter between Raynor and former human 'Ghost' Sarah Kerrigan - now the corrupted and dreaded Queen of Blades - seems inevitable.

The presentation of the story in Starcraft II is done via the modest 'hub world' of Raynor's battlecruiser. Between missions you can move around the ship, talk to key crew members to advance their own stories, unlock bonus missions, and research and upgrade equipment. The heavy 'rednecks in space' feel of the original game is in full effect, but while the characters are somewhat stereotypical, the quality of the acting and visual design is top-notch.

Many RTS series are trying to find ways to push the genre forwards from the simple base-building of old. With its Dawn of War and Company of Heroes series, Relic is focusing down onto small groups of units under direct control and individual character progression, merging the genre into more of an RTS/RPG hybrid. Supreme Commander is going the other way, offering action on an unprecedented scale. Blizzard on the other hand keep the campaign mode of SCII fresh by pretty much never repeating themselves. I can't recall any two missions in the game where all I did was build a base and an army, and march it across the map to wipe out my opponent.

There are stealth missions involving single characters or small groups, there is a train robbery mission, there's one in which rising and falling molten lava reveals and hides parts of the map in turn. There's a mission where the entire map is being consumed with fire, forcing you to keep uprooting your base and units and re-establishing them. Another where you have to defend a base during a day/night cycle, completing objectives across the map during the day, while the night part brings overwhelming hordes of creatures to bear on you. The range of things to do in the campaign mode means that it never for one moment feels repetitive or stale. On top of that there's an element of branching structure, where certain missions (and eventual technologies) are available or not depending on your decisions and dealings with major characters.

Optionally through the missions are secondary objectives that bring you rewards in the shape of points to spend on Zerg and Protoss research. Money is also rewarded for successful missions, and this can also be spent on upgrades to your units, vehicles and buildings. You can't simply afford everything, so choices have to be made on where to spend these resources.

The storyline wraps up the chapter very nicely, while obviously paving the way for the next instalment - Heart of the Swarm - in 2012, telling the Zerg side of things. It may not be the greatest story ever told but it's done with such warmth, humour and style that it's totally compelling. However, the campaign is only half of the package of Starcraft II.

Once you're done following the story it's time to jump online and pit yourself against other people on

Now, we all know Blizzard have a long and celebrated history with their devotion to the online side of their games. Notwithstanding the behemoth that is World of Warcraft, they have continued to refine and support Starcraft and Diablo II for over a decade. Still patching and tweaking things after all this time. Their relaunched service brings everything together for their three core series, and it's a really slick piece of work.

You can jump right in against other players and fight your way up the rankings, but first it's best to play a series of unranked matches that determines whereabouts you should start when you do go competitive. takes all the stats from your games and figures out who you ought to be playing against, skill-wise. As long as people aren't hustling the system you should mostly get matched against a fair competitor. Starcraft II online is thrilling stuff, and while I'm certainly not very good at it I still enjoy it immensely. The replay functionality is very helpful here, not only for your own mistakes but also to see just how others play the game. also keeps track of crazy numbers of stats for the truly dedicated.

If you have friends on it's also a great social game to boot. Lobbies of players can spectate on matches, chatting in their own channel and viewing the action freely or from the point of view of any player. They also have access to information such as current construction, unit breakdown, economy, and even how many actions per minute the players are performing. Blizzard have done as good a job as possible to maintain the spectator sport feel of Starcraft online play.

I'm an unrepentent and unapologetic Blizzard fanboy. I love the games they make and I love the way they go about making them, from visual design to company philosophy. Yes we have to wait for years, but I'll take their "Ready when it's ready" approach over any rush to a release date, especially when they deliver a game of this calibre. Not only my favourite of the year by quite a margin, it's right up there with the best I've ever played.

Top Ten of 2010 - Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect was released just a little too late to be included in my all-time top 100, where it would have secured a high spot. ME2 improves on the original in almost every way.

For starters the overhauled engine is so much better you wouldn't believe the two were related. On PC it's much less of an issue, but the difference between ME1 and 2 on Xbox 360 is night and day. It's not just visual though... in every facet of the sequel Bioware stepped up and delivered the goods. In some quarters the streamlining of the interface was regarded as dumbing down, moving the game closer to an action adventure than an RPG. In reality it removes a lot of cumbersome and frankly unenjoyable busywork and lets the player focus on the thrilling story and enormously improved combat.

Mass Effect as a whole is totally irresistable to a space opera fan, and through both games it really feels like you're an integral part of this complex, expanding story. In true Bioware tradition there are tough choices to be made that significantly impact the subsequent path of the story, and beyond that there are dozens of callbacks to minor incidents from the first game (importing a character from ME1 is an absolute must). All this of course adds huge replay value. The choice to put instant Paragon and Renegade actions on a mouse click without ever telling you exactly what will happen is a brilliant move as well, with often surprising and hilarious results.

There's some astonishing performance work going on too. While there are always moments of iffy animation they are completely overshadowed by the quality of movement and expression in cutscenes. The writing and characterizations are also uniformly excellent (in particular the Asari character Samara blows my mind with her realism and performance), and the extent to which Bioware has gone regarding relevant dialogue depending on your characters is very impressive. It's a game with really no poor dramatic qualities to speak of. Structure-wise, where ME1 was an epic quest with a strong story thread, ME2 is more a sequence of short adventures with an overarching main plot - different but no less accomplished.

I seem to be alone in lamenting the loss of the planetary exploration aspect, which to me was a big part of feeling like I was truly 'out there' in the unknown reaches of the galaxy. I also seem to be alone in enjoying the planet scanning and mining aspect that they added in its stead (though even I admit that's not quite so addictive on multiple playthroughs).

Bioware have fashioned a compelling universe to play around in. It may borrow heavily from established sources but it has enough of a unique identity to stand on its own. Where a lot of game series slog through unwelcome sequels of decreasing value, here the proposed trilogy doesn't feel like enough. I really didn't think anything would beat Mass Effect 2 for me this year...

Top Ten of 2010 - Civilization V

The venerable Civilization series continues to refine and move forwards, ideas coming and going, and small but welcome visual upgrades marking each new instalment. I've loved Civ since my Amiga struggled to handle it almost 20 years ago, and while I've always been generally rubbish at it, it nevertheless keeps me enthralled and addicted with its legendary 'One more turn' gameplay, and of course the basic fulfilment of watching my empire grow.

Civilization V is actually very pleasing to look at, with nice effects and animations and a new terrain model that allows features to blend in more seamlessly with one another, giving more of a natural feel to the landscape while still being easy to read. As ever, my main enjoyment of playing these games is just seeing everything expand and improve, dipping into the Civilopedia for a bit of light history now and then. Aside from being a strategy game, Civilization encompasses a few interests of mine (ancient history, culture and the progress of technology), and while obviously only being on a very superficial level it still feels like I'm involved in something fascinating and educational - only the teacher is really cool.

From the changes, without going into boring specific details I'm most happy with the streamlined interface they've evolved from the console outing Revolution, the addition of City-States to mix things up nicely alongside the full-blown civilizations, and the decision to have only one military unit per tile (I always found stacked military units clumsy to deal with). Everything feels... cleaner. It's still incredibly difficult to get anything other than a military victory over the AI on harder difficulties though.

It feels like faint praise when really that's not the way I intend it, but Civ is like a comfy pair of slippers. I find it wonderfully relaxing. Winter especially benefits from a good long session huddled at the PC with snacks and coffee, click-click-clicking those turns away.

Top Ten of 2010 - Super Meat Boy

Another title in the list that wears its retro credentials on its sleeve, Super Meat Boy is a ferociously challenging platformer that demands every last drop of skill from the player.

The main thing about SMB is that it should be maddening. It should be throw-the-controller frustrating... but it's not. There's something about the presentation that's so goofy and cheerful that continual failure only raises laughs instead of ire. There's also a deep respect for the game itself. The control is so perfectly pitched and the levels so cleverly designed that not only are you sure that next time you'll crack it, you feel you owe it to the game to succeed. SMB doesn't cheat the player. It's hard but totally fair, and for the most part every failed attempt only serves to refine your sequence through a level. The first tricky jump becomes second nature as you focus on the second, and so on. Often you get your first look at a level and think "No way". But then you do it. You may do it after 100 attempts - but you do it. The satisfaction is unequalled.

And to be honest, as an oldschool arcade gamer it's nice to know you've still got it.

Top Ten of 2010 - Pac-Man Championship Edition DX

The original Pac-Man Championship Edition featured in my all-time top 100, and a little over three years later the follow-up has arrived to take its place, refining, expanding and improving the modern classic in every way (Pac-Man CE is even included wholesale as a mode in this version).

It retains the neon look of the original - already firmly established as a perfect visual choice for such an update - and once again focuses on timed score attacks rather than the more endurance-run nature of the Pac-Man of old. The new key factor is the 'Ghost Train'. Most ghosts now sleep in positions on the maze, and only wake when Pac-Man moves past them. When that happens they follow him determinedly, building to a line of up to 30 in the train. By eating a power pill Pac-Man can turn on the train and munch through it in a spectacularly satisfying fashion, speeding up as he goes while the sound effects increase in pitch. So, the core of the gameplay is to figure the most efficient path through each dot pattern, making sure to pick up all the ghosts on the maze as you go.

When pulled off successfully this becomes a beautifully flowing sequence, and the dot patterns and ghost layouts have obviously been painstakingly designed to that end. A perfectly executed set of patterns will always see a power pill appear, the resultant chomp through the ghost train giving a massive points boost before the maze resets for the next run. The flies in the ointment for the player are the handful of free ghosts that move about the maze, and the fact that the speed of the game increases as the points increase. At high levels Pac-Man becomes incredibly fast, requiring lightning reflexes and forward-planning if the patterns are to be maintained.

When things become a little too much - an error in movement or a bit of bad luck with the free ghosts - the player has a limited number of bombs they can use. A bomb blows away any ghosts directly next to Pac-Man, and sends the current train to the ghost box in the centre. The game also features a nifty 'bullet time' moment when a ghost gets too close, giving the player an essential extra moment to act. Lives aren't really a factor (unless you're incredibly incompetent you'll never run out before the timer does). It's all about chasing the score.

The original Pac-Man template is a piece of game design perfection. A few clever and well-considered tweaks to the formula were all that was needed to keep it not only relevant after thirty years, but absolutely essential for anyone with a true love of videogames in their purest form.

Top Ten of 2010 - Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light

When Crystal Dynamics announced GoL as a downloadable, isometric instalment of their Tomb Raider series it left a lot of people highly dubious and somewhat alarmed. Closer inspection however proved that the name Tomb Raider was absent, and this was clearly going to be some kind of standalone experiment with no impact or connection to the mainline Tomb Raider saga.

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light of course went on to become arguably the finest Tomb Raider game yet, with the possible exception of Anniversary.

Guardian of Light takes the form of a twin-stick shooter married to a heavy puzzler and collect-em-up. In doing so, Crystal Dynamics finally - maybe accidentally - found the perfect action template for its heroines' adventures. Combat (by far the weakest element of traditional Tomb Raiders) is no longer a confusion of wonky targeting and spastic camerawork. Teeming waves of enemies come from all sides, punctuated with thrilling but refreshingly fair boss fights. It's effortless, intense and enjoyable. It's Smash TV with puzzles.

Speaking of which, GoL doesn't scrimp on the brain requirements either. Puzzles range from perfunctory, immediately-obvious efforts to level-spanning head-scratchers. However, as with all the best game puzzles a little experimentation and logical thinking should get you through without the need to reach for GameFAQs. I got stuck a couple of times, went away and came back to look at things anew and almost immediately cracked it. It balances things just right, as bogging the player down too much at any point would be a serious flaw in such an energetic and fast-flowing game.

Replayability comes in the form of challenges. Score targets for the levels, collecting 'red skulls' hidden throughout the game, speed runs and finally individual goals regarding boss fights or dexterity. Weapons can be unlocked and enhanced with the powers of found artifacts, and Lara herself can benefit from the effects of certain items. A nice, albeit very light action-RPG element.

The game looks great. While it obviously lacks that profound sense of being in ancient, cavernous spaces that the Tomb Raider games evoke, a broad range of textures, lighting, physics and particle effects really bring the world to life. Control is smooth and intuitive and it's generous with autosaves. You can sit and play through the whole thing in a few hours, or nibble away at it piece by piece, either way suits.

Much grumbling was done about the game not releasing with a proposed co-op mode. This followed later and while I understand co-op seems to be some sort of essential make-or-break for contemporary gamers it really doesn't sway me one way or the other. I found GoL to be an enormously enjoyable single-player experience, and I would welcome many more instalments in this particular treatment of Lara Croft's adventures.

Top Ten of 2010 - Final Fantasy XIII

I'm sure this isn't going to be a particularly acquiescent appearance in the list, but since politics and the opinion of the masses doesn't matter to me one bit I can go ahead and state that Final Fantasy XIII is one of my favourites in the series, possibly even taking the number two slot after XII.

Let's face it: Japanese RPG stories are almost always rubbish, and the characters barely anything more than the thinnest of sketches. Random encounters are an unwelcome relic of the past, and most turn-based combat systems are dull and needlessly lengthy. What keeps you playing them is the stat/gear levelling compulsion. So, make a JRPG with a story so baffling you give up even trying to follow it, but give it a combat system so dynamic, intense and fun it won't even matter.

Oh, and make it staggeringly beautiful to boot.

And by golly is FFXIII beautiful. Frequently on my journey through the game I'd just stand still and gaze around the environments I was in. Environments that only became more impressive as the story moved on. I loved being in this world and because it was so filled with eye candy I didn't even care about the ultra-linear progression, or the slow feed of the whys and wherefores of the tale. To match the visuals it has a superb soundtrack, one that deviates quite significantly from the expected FF norms. Even now just thinking back on some of the sights and sounds of this game I get a warm feeling.

However, what really kept me focused and utterly addicted throughout a 55-hour completion time was that combat system. Sure early on you can get away with hitting X on everything, but a) that's boring, and b) you won't learn anything for later, when pressing X won't get you very far at all. Soon enough you're juggling strategies constantly, micromanaging a particular technique here, whipping out an item there, and the game does not stop to let you ponder a move. Later boss fights are tremendously intense and satisfying, and even lesser encounters are made hugely enjoyable by the stagger/juggle system, which puts the combat more into the mold of a Devil May Cry or Bayonetta. It's no idle addition that you're scored for speed after every fight... employ ill-thought out tactics and you may not only score lowly, you may lose altogether. There's a special satisfaction upon finding the right combination and timing of attacks for a particular enemy, cutting a ten-minute encounter down to thirty seconds.

The next step for Final Fantasy is going to be very interesting indeed, either for its continued push through the boundaries of expectation, or its defeated retreat into tried and trusted norms. Either way, FFXIII stands as a pivotal moment where a genuine chance was taken, and in the most conservative of genres that's merit enough.

Top Ten of 2010 - Red Dead Redemption

I'm not a fan of the Grand Theft Auto games, largely for their story and character content but also for the fact that if you drop me into a sandbox world where I don't care much about the story I tend to just wander about a bit then get bored. I had no intention of even checking it out until a friend told me it was a free roaming open-world game. Red Dead Redemption makes my list purely because of its world.

Content-wise RDR falls down in a few places. Spending such a large amount of time in the world naturally sees you repeating many incidental encounters (though it was a long time before I simply started shooting first when faced with another ambush), and I could have done with a lot more in terms of 'ambient challenges'. But the story is the focus of the game that Rockstar wanted to make. It's just a pity that almost everything about the story feels like a wasted opportunity.

John Marston is supposedly a fearsome man with a violent past, and although admittedly he's trying to get away from that, circumstances put him in a situation that calls upon his particular expertise. The problem is that he never really gets to show it. Marston is pushed around from pillar to post by a succession of completely despicable characters, whom you feel Marston ought to put a bullet through without a second thought. He goes along with whatever busywork they need doing - often at odds with his own character - in the service of his own ultimate goal. So the storyline betrays the character you're initially very excited about being in the shoes of, and keeps you rolling along with a series of repetitive 'Go here, kill these guys' missions. Indeed, in my desire to unlock the third and final area of the map I decided to plough through a large chunk of the Nuevo Paraiso missions in one sitting, which nearly put me off the game for good (I can see how it would become tiresome for anyone playing the game for the story, rather than despite it).

Perhaps the most disappointing thing is the climax of the story, because it's so good, and kind of shames the laziness of everything that has gone before it. Rockstar bravely lets the player settle into an almost idyllic civilian life, completely cranking down the pace of the action, which makes the end of Marston's story all the more affecting when it comes.

All that sounds like a game-killer, and quite honestly it would be were the game not so completely captivating in every other way.

I'm a sucker for a Western, you see, and RDR gave me the opportunity to exist in an incredibly well-realised chunk of the Old West. I poured close to 50 hours into a game I could have burned through in less than 20, simply because I spent so much time enjoying the scenery, the hunting and gathering, and the hugely fun and rewarding treasure hunts (I remarked many times that they could keep adding treasure maps to the game as downloadable content and I'd lap them up). I only pushed the story forward in order to open up more areas to explore. It's a genuinely beautiful game - I'd pull up my horse and spend time watching the sun set behind the mesas of Nuevo Paraiso (the game's Monument Valley analogue), or just spend hours of gametime walking about in the wilderness, swinging the camera around for the best views (and looking out for the game's fearsome cougars).

Mechanically the game is rock solid (pun probably intended). The guns feel weighty and have a great action, and the horse riding is a whole lot of fun. Hunting bears in a stormy forest at night became an experience on a par with the best survival horror. Add to that a very well considered multiplayer component and you have a gameworld that's a pleasure to drop in and spend a significant amount of time with.

So, a Rockstar open-world sandbox game with a fairly rubbish story and unlikeable cast managed to become one of my favourites of the year. I really am a sucker for a Western.

Top Ten of 2010 - Hydorah

Three years in the making, Hydorah is a true labour of love for retro-inspired creator Locomalito and music collaborator Gryzor87. Locomalito's game design philosophy makes for joyful reading for any oldschool fan, and Hydorah encompasses everything about it beautifully.

Heavily inspired by classic horizontal 'memorization' shmups - most notably the Gradius series - Hydorah casts the player as pilot of a lone fighter, battling waves of an alien menace before facing a boss at the end of each stage. Enemies drop items that automatically upgrade the ship along the way, from speed boosts to main weapon power. Special weapons with limited uses can also be collected, and are selected prior to each level. There is also a small branching structure along the route to the final stage for added replayability.

The level of care and attention that has gone into the visuals of Hydorah is gobsmacking for a one-man effort. Beautifully designed pixel art that instantly transports you back to the arcades of the mid-80s. Smooth, detailed animations and wonderfully varied environments. Simply put, if this game was in an arcade in the 80s it could stand proudly alongside a Gradius II or R-Type. Equal respect goes to the music, while not being the expected chiptune accompaniment to the retro visuals it's nevertheless a superb synth soundtrack that fits the action perfectly.

The game is challenging, but like all the finest memorization shmups you learn it section by section and (unless you're having a particularly bad day) you inch a little further with each session. Indeed, when an in-development demo was released a while back it did prove brutally difficult, mainly down to unforgiving hitboxes. Criticisms were taken onboard and the final product addressed all the issues.

Oh, and this game is FREE. Anyone with even the most modest PC can download it, plug in a pad and experience one of the finest traditional shmups in recent years. So, what are you waiting for?

Top Ten of 2010 - Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World

To tie in with one of the best films of the year (shame on you for not seeing it), rather than take the obvious lazy route of 3rd-person action adventure/collect 'em up, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World - The Video Game takes the form of an old-school scrolling brawler. Entirely appropriate considering the film and the comic it's based on chart the adventures of a loser-ish videogame obsessed slacker who just happens to be the best fighter in his province. In order to win the right to date his new flame, Scott has to defeat her seven evil exes in battle. Cue several levels of scrolling mayhem capped with boss fights.

What makes this more interesting than countless Final Fight wannabes is the progression system of the characters. From an initial selection of four, your choice starts the game slow, weak and lacking in moves. Here's the point at which casual attention turns elsewhere, because expectation says that the game should be played through, Double Dragon style in one sitting. That's not the way this works. SPvtW:tV also mixes in RPG elements that are crucial to successfully completing the game. As you make your way through the stages you acquire money and experience. Money is used to increase your stats such as strength, speed and HP, and experience levels you up to unlock a variety of moves. The idea is to play over and over, pushing forwards a little more each time as you're able to. It is simply impossible to take a starting character and beat the game from the off.

Happily, what this means is that you will finish the game despite its first appearance as soul-crushingly difficult. Yes, you may have to level up until you're so ridiculously overpowered you can't lose, but you still have to put in the effort to get there. Mostly it's very fun to do so. There are some niggles, largely due to the sometimes slapdash feel it has. It's unfair in all the ways brawlers are (getting stuck in a loop of knock down / recover in time to be knocked down again is always fun), it's rough around the edges in terms of the interface, and it can be dangerously buggy if you're unlucky.

Everything else shines though. The visuals (directed by pixel art maestro Paul Robertson) are beautiful evocations of 16-bit glories, and chiptune legends Anamanaguchi provide one of the videogame soundtracks of the year. Considering its nature it's ironically a really good game to relax to as well. I often fire it up just to 'grind' through the lower levels and accumulate some cash (at this point the enemies are no kind of threat).

Despite its flaws, technical shortcomings and initially offputting difficulty, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World proved to be a bit of a gem for those of us prone to misty-eyed reminiscences of pixels and chiptunes gone by.